Thursday, 11 December 2014

Madrasahs trump themselves at PSLE

Top performer does even better; penalised school gets sterling results
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2014

WHEN Mr Noor Isham Sanif became principal of Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah in 2009, it was already the top-performing Islamic school.

Still, the 48-year-old former vice-principal of Princess Elizabeth Primary School started applying strategies he had learnt from mainstream schools at the madrasah. Six years on, his efforts have paid off.

The Primary 1 cohort when Mr Noor joined the school received its Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results two weeks ago, producing the best showing by a madrasah.

Among them is Aisyah Nurul Izza, 12, who scored a record-breaking 269 - the highest aggregate score by a madrasah pupil. Overall, 98.4 per cent of 311 madrasah pupils who sat the PSLE qualified for secondary schools, up from 89.3 per cent last year.

The leading nine pupils from Al-Irsyad were also top across the four madrasahs that offer the primary school syllabus. The other three are Al-Maarif, Wak Tanjong and Alsagoff.

A heartened Mr Noor said: "It is a lot of hard work. We cannot stop trying and, as the principal, I have to walk the talk."

And so he did. A maths teacher by training, he stayed back a few days a week to coach weaker pupils in the subject.

"When the principal talks to pupils face to face, they will feel they are important too," he said.

The pupils who often said they were unable to complete the maths paper in time got stopwatches to time themselves. "Actually, all of them can do the sums within one minute, but they are not pushing themselves," he said.

Mr Noor made the teachers specialise in certain areas. "In the past, (those) teaching Primary 4 may also teach Secondary 4, but we saw that that doesn't work," said Mr Noor.

Al-Irsyad was not the only Islamic school that did well.

Madrasah Wak Tanjong had been barred from taking in Primary 1 pupils from 2012 to this year after it did badly at the PSLE.

In 2008 and 2010, it failed to meet a Ministry of Education requirement that madrasah pupils must not score lower than the average PSLE aggregate score of Malay pupils at the six lowest-performing national schools.

This year, Wak Tanjong scored an average PSLE aggregate of 197 - the highest across the four madrasahs, and well above this year's benchmark of 171. It will be allowed to enrol Primary 1 pupils again next year.

"Our strategy was to solve the problem that brought down our school's aggregate score. We had to help the weaker pupils," said its principal, Ustaz Mohammad Abdul Halim Mohammad Noor.

To raise standards, the school cut back on religious classes and hired external vendors to conduct enrichment courses. Weaker pupils were mentored by old boys and girls. "Our former students, some of them are in university now, but they came back each week to coach the weaker pupils," said the 53-year-old principal.

But madrasahs face other challenges, said Mr Noor. "The ustaz of the future must be good in maths, science and critical thinking, and (also) be very human," he said, referring to religious leaders. "We don't want to just meet the benchmark - we have to keep doing better each year."

Top pupil fuelled by love for learning
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2014

AS A young girl, Aisyah Nurul Izza's favourite spot was along the aisles of bookshelves in the Geylang East Public Library children's section.

From kindergarten to primary school, she was on a mission to find out all about her favourite topics, from mountains to dinosaurs to manatees.

Each topic turned into a mini-project that took several months, during which she and her mother made scrapbooks of all that they had learnt about it.

Aisyah's love for learning has stood her in good stead, as the 12-year-old emerged this year as the top madrasah pupil in the Primary School Leaving Examination.

With a score of 269, the Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah pupil also has the highest aggregate points by an Islamic school pupil. The previous top scorer was her senior, Sakinah Yusof, who attained 266 in 2010.

Aisyah said she was surprised when she received her results - A stars for English, Mathematics, Science and Malay - last month. She also achieved an A star for Islamic Studies, a non-examinable subject.

"I didn't expect such a high score, much less to get the highest score by a madrasah pupil," said the daughter of a software engineer and a housewife.

Her family, who lives in a four-room flat in Bedok, moved to Singapore from Pemalang, an Indonesian city, 10 years ago as her father had a job posting here in the telecommunications industry.

Aisyah and her parents are now permanent residents. Her four-year-old brother will be trying for the same status next year.

She applied last week to secondary schools, including mainstream girls' schools, and may apply to Madrasah Al-Arabiah Al-Islamiah in Toa Payoh as well.

"There may be some cultural differences in a mainstream school, so I have to try and fit in with other people," said Aisyah, who hopes to be a scientist or chemist in future. "I'm looking forward to trying new subjects like biology and chemistry, making new friends and having a new experience."

In fact, she is so excited that she is now doing an Introduction to Chemistry course on Coursera, an online learning provider.

She spends an hour three days a week listening to lectures on quantum numbers as well as intermolecular forces and reactions, for the module offered by Duke University based in the United States.

Her mother, Madam Novi Fitriani, 42, said: "When my children like something, I encourage them to find out more about the topic and explore."

Her son, for instance, has been intrigued by the heavy machinery at a construction site near his pre-school in East Coast.

"He likes to watch things like excavators and cranes," said Madam Novi. "So we stand at the overhead bridge every day on the way home and look at the site for about five minutes before we go home."

She added: "When Aisyah asks me questions, I try to help her look for answers from libraries and the Internet because I may not know everything. She is now an independent learner."

Unlike many of her peers, Aisyah's free time is not spent on tuition. Instead, she enjoys reading mystery books by Agatha Christie, learning to play the piano, and swimming on the weekends.

Said Madam Novi: "I don't believe in stressing her. Too much work is not good."

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